Keeping a Story-Starter Notebook: 5 Ways to Start Your Story

Everyone has their own hang ups when it comes to writing their story. Sometimes we’re inspired to write, but don’t know what to write about. Sometimes we start something but can’t get through the middle slog, or don’t know how to end it. Other times we know what we want our story to be about, but just don’t know how to start it. For this last reason, it is handy—nay, essential—to keep a Story-Starter Notebook.

Don’t forget, if you’re reading this in April of 2021, I have an Earth Month offer, only available until April 23, 2021!

What is a Story-Starter Notebook?

Very simply, a Story-Starter Notebook is just a place where you keep ideas of how to start a story. This doesn’t have to be in a notebook proper, but can be in an app on your phone, a spreadsheet on your computer, or notes in your planner. I personally use a shocking amount of space in my planners for just this purpose.

The idea is that you keep a running list of things that inspire you. What would catch your eye if you were opening a book and reading the first line? What would be a situation that would make you ask questions?

A short story of mine, “June,” about a little girl who knew that she and her mother were dragons, though no one else knew, came about from sitting under a tree watching kids play in its branches. I listened to the conversations around me, and wrote down interesting lines of dialogue. From there, the story was born.

How to Find Story-Starters

It’s all well and good to keep these things written down, but how do you find story-starters? If they were easy to find, then the plethora of writers who struggle to start their stories wouldn’t struggle to start their stories.

1. Generating Ideas

This is an assignment I often give my clients: write down any first-liners you think of and store them for a rainy day. This is just as difficult and easy as it sounds.

Write down any idea that happens to come to mind that you think sounds like a good story-starter.

Years ago, I was driving home and in my mind was arguing with someone, going over and over how I should handle a particular issue in my life. Then one line of my argument wafted to my attention. I realized that could make for a good opener. My mind then shifted from my imaginary argument to the different directions that line could take me.

Another time, while in Greece, I was a little less than sober and looked up at the cliff near the house. I noticed there was a particular pattern in the rock, and the thought, “My gin-soaked mind seems to have found the gravestones in the cliff.”

It needed some worked, but given that at the time I was working on a gothic horror, it felt like a perfect launching point for a scene. Of course, my mind was, as stated, gin-soaked. However, the next day I was able to rework it, polish it, and build on it.

These observations come up all the time. It’s just whether or not you’re present enough to witness them and take note.

2. Read Poetry

If you don’t already read poetry, chances are, you’ll hate being told to read poetry. However, there is a poem out there for everyone. Some like the floral language of the Romantic Era, others prefer something real, tangible, and directly relatable as is found in the works of Andrea Gibson, Dean Atta, Emily Juniper, or Tawnya Selene Renelle. Some want something with justice behind it, and find comfort and inspiration in Audrey Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, Staceyann Chin, Maya Angelou, and June Jordan. Or, some people are just interested in the weird, and find intrigue with poets like Jim Morrison. There are so many different styles of poetry, and saying you don’t like poetry is like saying you don’t like food. It’s nourishing and necessary, and there is something out there for all taste.

While reading it, you can find lines that inspire you, and by all means, use those as story-starter prompts. You might even use one of those lines as the literal first line in a piece (if you publish, be sure ask permission and give credit to the poet!).

Collect lines that resonate with you, that spark your imagination, that get your mind buzzing with possibilities. You can return to them time and time again for inspiration.

3. Eavesdrop

Yeah, you heard me. While yes, one ought not to eavesdrop, it makes for fantastic story fodder. I hear snippets of conversation all the time that get my mind reeling with possibility and questions. Start listening in to those around you while you’re standing in line at the bank, while you’re walking in the park, or if you’re (safely) eating outside at a restaurant.

Try not to take note of full conversations, but just of statements, even if they seem somewhat boring. You can use those statements or questions or exclamations to build on. How can they start your story and lead to something remarkable?

4. Random Page

Turning to a random page in a book can also be an interesting way of starting a story. This is closely related to selecting lines from poetry, though a little different. I personally have used this in terms of bibliomancy (I’ll get to this in a minute), though moments ago was inspired to look at it in terms of writing prompts.

As I was writing this post, I was interrupted by my phone buzzing, sending me a notification of a prompt: “Grab the nearest book to you, turn to page 45. The first line is your love life.”

A few of my friend commented on this with their nearest book. One of the lines was “Among the gifted, the ability to bend magic to your will is not a weapon that makes you exceptional, much less invincible.”

I was intrigued. What love-situation could make this statement necessary to be said, and true?

Bibliomancy is the art of holding a question in your mind, picking a book at random, turning to a page at random, and selecting a sentence at random on the page to answer your question. This can equally be used for story-starting prompts, or really, any writing prompts.

5. Observing the World Around You

Another way you can start to develop your story-starters is to pay attention to the world around you. Or, if you’re safely and wisely sheltering in place, you can do this with shows that you watch, or by opening the window.

Use your five senses and take note of what you smell, what you hear, what you see, what you feel, and what you taste.

Referring to number 2, reading poetry can help you tune in to how to observing the world around you. Many poems are simply observing and writing what is less noticed and noting the significance in what is being observed. By getting used to these kinds of noticings, you’re training yourself to do the same.

What do your senses notice?

Mindfulness

Being mindful is somewhat of a buzz concept. However, being present, that is, being aware of what is going on around you, and active enough in your mentality to take note of what is going on around you is the key to finding inspiration in daily life. There are a plethora of writing prompts out there, books that give you daily inspirations, exercises, and so on

Really, all you need is to be mindful.

This is a skill that sometimes needs to be built upon. Simply being in the moment. Taking five minutes a day to notice your thoughts, your breathing, your body, your senses, all of it. This is all that being mindful means.

When you do this, then you’re also in the presence of mind to notice when those interesting conversations are heard and write them down, when you have an interesting thought in your head wander through, when you see something noteworthy, etc. Thanks to technology, it’s easier than ever to jot these things down on our phones, or make a voice memo. Or, you can of course go the tried-and-true method of just keeping a little notebook with you for just such occasions.

If there is anything that can be taken away from this post, mindfulness is what will help you find writing prompts and inspiration in your daily life. Make noticing and being present a habit.

Your Homework

Your homework is to start your Story-Starter Notebook, whatever that might look like. However, there is a specific exercise to get you going:

Write 25 first lines.

Set a timer for 10 minutes and get down 25 first sentences in that 10 minutes. Don’t think this. Just write them out, one after the other. Whatever comes to mind, write it down. You’ll find that after the first few, you’re just desperate to get thing down. As a result, your inner critic gives up, thus taking some of the pressure off you, and your mind begins to flow.

Don’t forget, if you’re reading this in April of 2021, I have an Earth Month offer, only available until April 23, 2021!

Happy Writing!

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Nicola Thompson

Born and raised in the Pacific North West (Washington State to be specific), I'm currently living on a farm, raising chickens, and writing in North Yorkshire. A former editor of Durham University's online magazine, The Bubble, I also write for the magazine Carpe Nocturne, and have several short stories published in a variety of anthologies.

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